classic literature

Watch Sheldon Pollock answering his own question, 'What is Indian knowledge good for?'

'It's what's left of god's purpose when you take god away.'

Why do some Indian professors want Sheldon Pollock to be removed from his position as editor of the Murty Classical Library? The MCL, masterminded and funded by Infosys founder NR Narayana Murthy's son Rohan Murty, aims to translate classical Indian texts of various languages into English.

Here's a stated answer, from the petition started by IIT Bombay Professor Ganesh Ramakrishnan: "He echoes the views of Macaulay and Max Weber that the shastras generated in India serve no contemporary purpose except for the study of how Indians express themselves."

Pollock's position is far more nuanced, however. He believes the Indian knowledge, as embodied in its ancient texts, serves no practical purpose, but shines a light on pure learning. And this, perhaps, galls those who believe that the Vedas contained the mysteries of modern science.

The video above is an excerpt from Pollock's 2014 lecture in Mumbai titled, "What is Indian Knowledge good for?" Here he explains how there is a global crises where the functionality of knowledge has gained relevance, forcing certain knowledge systems towards devaluation.

Declares Pollock: "Indian knowledge... like Greek knowledge, like Hebrew knowledge, is important because it doesn't do anything. It doesn't do anything. You cannot put a price on it. Kids today know the price of everything and the value of nothing...

"Market thinking – read Michael Sandel's book What Money Can't Buy – market thinking has invaded everything. What does the study of ancient India help you understand? That there are things you cannot buy, there are things you cannot turn into a profit, there are things you do not instrumentalise.

"We do not study ancient Indian past to find the cure for cancer in a Vedic text. There is no cure for cancer in a Vedic text, there's no recipe for cold fusion in the Veda. Knowing something about the past is radically non-instrumental if I can put it that way. We do not solve problems, we make problems, we, people who study such things, raise ontological questions, questions about your existence as a human being..."

Quoting from English playwright Tom Stoppard'sThe Invention of Love, Pollock goes on to answer the question he poses in the title of his talk.

"It's where we're nearest to our humanness. Useless knowledge for its own sake. Useful knowledge is good, too, but it's for the faint-hearted, an elaboration of the real thing, which is only to shine some light, it doesn't matter where on what, it's the light itself, against the darkness, it's what's left of god's purpose when you take god away."

Below is the video of the entire lecture, where Pollock routinely breaks into fluent Sanskrit.

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